Episode 11: We're in the wrong timeline

Detail from the cover of R.F. Kuang's  The Poppy War . Illustration by  Jungshan Ink .

Detail from the cover of R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War. Illustration by Jungshan Ink.

We've all been feeling like something is wrong with the timeline. In this episode, we ask what alternate history, fake history, and secondary world history can teach us about the present. Does exploring the past in fiction help us learn from history or are we doomed to repeat it? History-obsessed authors Connie Willis (Blackout, Doomsday Book) and R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War) offer their thoughts too.

This all got started because we were thinking about Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and secondary worlds.

One way that we re-imagine history is by changing one aspect of it, like religion. Secondary worlds that have no Catholicism as people knew it in the West include the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Authors like Ken Liu (Grace of Kings, Wall of Storms) are creating secondary worlds that reference Asian traditions, and non-western history more generally. Seth Dickinson's novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant does something similar.

R.F. Kuang, historian and author of The Poppy War, explains how she brought the real history of the Sino-Japanese wars into her fiction.

Max Gladstone, author of the Craft Cycle, deals with the recent history of the 2010 financial crisis in Three Parts Dead.

History is often portrayed as cyclical, and we see this in The Matrix Reloaded, Battlestar Galactica, A Canticle for Lebowitz by Walter M. Miller, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, the Planet of the Apes series, the Camelot legends, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

The Magicians television series and books by Lev Grossman deal with cyclical history and the cycle of trauma.

"The Reign of Terror" serial from Doctor Who is about hanging out during the French Revolution, meeting regular people who are just trying to get by.

Connie Willis is the award-winning author of many novels, including time travel classics Blackout, All Clear, and Doomsday Book. She explores the lives of ordinary people to create an emotional bridge between her readers and communities in distant times.

Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is another example of ordinary people dealing with the horrors of history--in this case, slavery in the U.S. south. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country explores how African-Americans survived during the 1950s Jim Crow Era. Octavia Butler's Kindred is about a modern black woman who travels back in time to a slave plantation, and has to rescue her ancestors--including a white slave owner.

Good alternate histories and secondary world histories for people to be reading/watching now include Underground Railroad and Lovecraft Country, of course. But also Man in the High Castle, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Chosen, N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, and the movie Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam). 


Annalee Newitz